Inching trepidatiously towards the edge of the world’s largest waterfall, I wondered how I got here. Swimming in the so-called Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls in Zambia was the one activity Tim and I agreed we were not going to do.
But there we were. Tim was loving it. And I… had complicated emotions that were a nauseating melange of terror and euphoria.
- Day 1: Chipata, Zambia
- Day 2: Lusaka
- Days 3-5: Livingstone
Dates: November 10-14, 2018
So how did we get there, at the edge of a waterfall 100 meters high? I’m not really sure, but I guess it all started when we finally arrived in the bustling tourist town of Livingstone on Zambia’s border with Zimbabwe.
Our small overland tour group was coming off of a lot of lazy beach time in both Zanzibar, Tanzania and Kande Beach, Malawi. We were all eager for the next exciting event of our trip, but had to endure two days of driving across Zambia from Malawi. The most excitement we had on those days was a return to wifi and the beautiful zebras meandering around our campsite outside of Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka. Don’t get me wrong, the zebras were cool, but after a month in Africa it just isn’t as exciting anymore.
Livingstone and Victoria Falls
From Lusaka we drove all day to Livingstone, just a few minutes from Victoria Falls. We went straight to the falls to check it out, excited to finally be doing something new again.
The national park is easy to explore, thanks to the many paved trails and bridges that navigate to various viewpoints of the falls. Unfortunately, we were all surprised to see that, contrary to the famous photos and warnings from our guides that we would get wet from the spray, there was hardly any water trickling over the cliffs.
Eventually we came to a view point where we could see in the distance a heavier flow of water thundering into the gorge. I realized it was the Zimbabwe half of the falls, a part we couldn’t access without having to pay for a visa. And even if we got over there, who is to say we’d see a lot more than what we had here in Zambia?
It was hard not to be a little disappointed. After all the hype, we definitely expected something a bit more thunderous. Of course, what we did see was beautiful and we even caught a few rainbows in the gorge. It was silly to complain.
After exploring the park, we checked into our campsite at Victoria Falls Waterfront. The place was beautiful, right on the river with a lovely pool and restaurant. Tim and I upgraded to a room with a bathroom and AC – a luxurious treat for our three nights in Livingstone. The best part was our upgrade ending up being half the cost we expected it to be!
After some internet research that evening I learned that we visited at the height of the dry season in Zambia. That, plus the hydroelectric plant that diverts water from the falls on the Zambia side anyway, explained why we only saw a trickle. On the Zimbabwe side, by contrast, water flows all year long.
Scenic Helicopter Flight
The main activity I wanted to do in Livingstone was a helicopter ride over the falls. This would allow us to see not only the falls from the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides by air, but also the deep gash in the earth that creates the 1.2 mile long waterfall. Since we didn’t spend as much as we expected to on our accommodations, Tim and I agreed this would be a worthy splurge.
So the next morning after breakfast, a driver from the helicopter company picked us up and took us to the helipad just a short drive away. This was only my second time in a helicopter (the first was in New Zealand at Franz Josef glacier), and I was excited.
To my surprise, Tim and I were the only passengers in the helicopter. This meant I got to ride in the front! The windows in the heli were large and clean, perfect for getting the best views once up in the air.
Though short (15 minutes), we both loved it. I felt like I actually got to “see” Victoria Falls fully as we flew over its entire length from Zambia to Zimbabwe. We also were able to see the gorges carved back over millions of years as the river and falls eroded a canyon into a zigzag pattern. We could even see the start of the next diagonal path behind the current fall point.
From above, the falls look like a rip in the fabric of the earth as if it were a split seam. It’s awe-inspiring to see the land continue flat and straight for so long and then suddenly crack open. Above the falls, a thick mist hovers, creating a permanent rainbow that spans both sides of the gorge, like a stitch pulling the seam back together.
After this experience, Tim and I were both happy with what we’d seen of Victoria Falls in Zambia. It had more than made up for the lack of thunderous water we’d seen the day before on our walk by the falls.
We spent the rest of our day relaxing and catching up with others on our tour group about what they had been up to and what they planned on doing the next day.
With one full day left in Livingstone, we wanted to do SOMETHING. We looked into visiting the national park nearby to spot rhinos, but read mixed reviews. We toyed with the idea of a sunset cruise. But nothing felt very interesting.
Almost jokingly, Tim suggested that we see if there were any spots available to go to the Devil’s Pool the next day. The tour office was already closed, so I semi-seriously suggested we check back in the morning. At this point, it seemed like a safe plan. Availability for the Devil’s Pool sells out quickly, and certainly they wouldn’t have any spots available for a same day booking.
In a way, it was perfect. I wouldn’t have to do this thing I was terrified of, and we could say we tried.
The next morning we checked in at the office. The travel agent said she doubted there would be any space but that she would call to check. Everything was going according to plan!
That is, until she hung up the phone and told us there were two spots available for the afternoon trip. Tim handed over the credit card and just like that, my fate was sealed. In a few hours, I would be swimming at the top of the world’s largest waterfall, mere inches from the edge.
I was a nervous wreck, but others in our tour group had already done and said it was incredible. I also read that it was deceivingly safe. People can only access the natural pool during the dry season, because the water is low and calm. There’s a tall wall that blocks you from the edge, much like if you were in a normal swimming pool. Plus, there had been no records of deaths or injuries that I could find.
Before long, it was time for us to go. Taxis took us, plus a few others who were new to our tour group, to another hotel.
There, we signed some waivers and got in a small boat. It was a short ride to Livingstone Island, a rocky chunk of land in the river above the falls. From the island we began walking towards the mist of the falls, stopping at scenic view points along the way. We swam to another pile of rocks. From here we would be climbing down into the Devil’s Pool. This was it.
A small current pushed everyone who entered the pool to the wall at the edge. Nervously, I got in and trusted that the current wouldn’t push me over.
It didn’t, and before I realized it, there I was, peering over the edge of the waterfall. Our guides had our cameras to take pictures and video of the whole experience. All we had to do was try not to panic. Tim was better at this than I was. I stayed at the edge for just a few minutes after our photos. Adrenaline coursing through me, I propped myself up on a rock to take in the entire place from a less anxiety-inducing vantage point.
It hit me how ridiculous it is to swim in a natural pool on top of the world’s largest waterfall. I wonder who originally discovered it, and how? If you didn’t know the wall was there, you’d think the water would push you right over. Astounded by the insane things humans do, I watched as our guides stood on the edge of the wall, getting different angles for people’s photos.
Soon, it was time for us to leave the pool. Admittedly relieved, I was also genuinely excited that I had actually done this crazy thing. Of course, the icing on the cake was the delicious spread of food and drinks we enjoyed on Livingstone Island afterwards. The brownies were some of the best I’ve ever had, and that’s not just the bottle of celebratory champagne talking.
We’d now seen the falls from all angles – in front of them, above them, and in them. Tim and I did something we swore we wouldn’t do, and we liked it.
Zambia ended up being way more exciting than we expected. With new travel energy, we felt ready to tackle the next leg of our overland journey – Botswana.